The Wall Street Journal LEISURE & ARTS The Iraqi Orchestra Is Here Why is the State Department keeping it quiet? BY AYAD RAHIM Thursday, December 11, 2003 12:01 a.m. EST
WASHINGTON--What does it take to get some service around here? Several weeks ago, I was asked by this newspaper to write an advance article on the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra's visit to Washington. Their concert, which took place this Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center, included Maestro Leonard Slatkin, the (American) National Symphony Orchestra and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. President and Mrs. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were in attendance. As an immigrant from Iraq with extensive knowledge of the issues, I would interview the musicians about their situation, and that of artists in general, under Saddam and in the new, post-Saddam era. I would look at what orchestra members have been through--the general manager had served 16 years in prison because he refused to work as a spy for the regime. And I would try to learn about the orchestra members' hopes for the future, their institution and for Iraqi arts and culture as a whole. This was a good news story for the government. As Mr. Powell said in introducing the orchestra on Tuesday night, "What we're about to hear is the sound of hope, the sweet, sweet sound of freedom." So you'd have thought that people at the State Department and the Kennedy Center would have been falling over themselves in the weeks before the concert to arrange media access. Instead, they acted more as if they had defectors from the North Korea Symphony Orchestra on their hands and as if the slightest press exposure would trigger an international incident. The Kennedy Center responded to my first e-mails, sent more than a month ago, by telling me they did not know when the Iraqis would arrive, nor what their schedule would be. Still in the dark two weeks later, I was told by a perturbed Kennedy Center official that this was a "complex operation involving the White House, the State Department, the Kennedy Center and [Washington] National Symphony." A week later I tried the State Department, co-sponsor with the Kennedy Center of the event, but made even less headway. No spokesperson would say when the orchestra would arrive, nor would they tell me anything about their schedule or even whether I'd be able to make contact with an orchestra member. I did manage to get contact information for Hisham Sharaf, director of the Iraqi orchestra. But I had to open a back channel to do so, one that led from an acquaintance in Cleveland, where I live, to a music collector, to a retired music critic in Cleveland, to a violinist in Vermont who'd formed a group called Young Musicians Without Borders to aid the Iraqi orchestra and their school, to a Norwegian aid group through which the Vermonter was working. I e-mailed Mr. Sharaf and called him a couple of days later. No response. I appealed to the Norwegians as well as an old friend, Sultan Khatib, a top Iraqi concert pianist in the Gulf, for help. The phone number I had for Mr. Sharaf in Baghdad, it turns out, is a cell phone with a New York area code. When I called again, five days before the concert, I was told Mr. Sharaf was in Jordan and was due to leave there the next day, Friday night. From that, I deduced the Iraqis would arrive in America on Saturday, three days before the concert. Meanwhile, officials in Washington would not confirm my hunch about the Iraqis' arrival date. Calls to the State Department and the Kennedy Center yielded only that the Iraqis would arrive "late in the weekend." Midway through last week, Tikki Davies, a Kennedy Center official, said that there was no chance to meet with any of the Iraqis before the concert, as "they will be totally busy from the time they arrive--practicing, meeting, with the [Washington] National Symphony--from morning till late at night." If I wanted to meet with anybody, she said, I was to attend an event the Iraqis would have for schoolchildren, the day after the concert--too late for my deadline. Later, I learned that a rehearsal was opened up to the press--for all of 15 minutes. Members of the press, though, were kept more than 11 rows from the stage. After my repeated prodding and insistence last week, Adam Meier, the State Department person handling the Iraqi orchestra, said he was "working to get me time with one or two [orchestra] members before the concert." By then, my search had led beyond State and the Kennedy Center. I was contacting people in the Washington National Symphony, the Defense Department and the Coalition Provisional Authority. Invariably, my messages went unreturned. I left Cleveland to drive to Washington on Friday, making more calls along the way. By my count, I had now spoken with 31 officials and had no more information than when I'd started. Still, I made a second round of phone calls later in the afternoon. How absurd was this getting? My cousin, newly appointed Iraqi ambassador to Washington, called a contact in the National Security Council on late Friday afternoon, asking them to assist me. She later told me that even she would have no access to the orchestra until just before their Tuesday evening concert. Maybe older modes of communication would work. The Kennedy Center official agreed to deliver a note to the Iraqis, but that, too, turned into a comedy of errors. I arrived at the center on Saturday only to be told the official was in a meeting but that someone would come down to get my note. I waited for two hours but nobody came down. I later learned the note had been delivered, but I couldn't find out to whom. Nor did I get a response to the note. Sunday morning, I received a call from the State Department handler, Adam Meier, saying that he would see if the Iraqis would be willing to meet with the press, and if I could join them for dinner that evening. Progress? Not really. At four in the afternoon, he called back to say the Iraqis were too busy for a dinner meeting. The next morning, Mr. Meier finally explained the runaround: "That's the policy with these kinds of exchange programs--not to give out information." Too true. When I asked Patricia O'Kelly, with the National Symphony, how many hours the Iraqis would be rehearsing that day, she replied, "I'm sorry, I'm not going to discuss their schedule." Monday afternoon I picked up a voice-mail message informing me that three Iraqis would be available to the press in just over an hour--again for just 20 minutes. At the meeting, the Iraqis spoke of their desire to "disseminate Iraqi culture and music" abroad and to improve their abilities through interactions with foreign experts. Afterward, as they were escorted out to dinner, I caught up with them and found out where they were staying. Over the weekend my editors' displeasure with the runaround had filtered back to the State Department. Suddenly, they couldn't do enough for me. Monday night, I received an e-mail from no less a personage than State Department spokesman Richard Boucher offering assistance. The next morning I picked up a message from Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Patricia Harrison, who was the top official involved in the Iraqi orchestra visit. "I wish you'd called me earlier, but in any case there's plenty of time," it said. In fact, I had called her a week earlier and heard nothing back. That afternoon, as I entered the Kennedy Center, Assistant Secretary Harrison offered me an interview--with her, about her wider efforts on behalf of Iraqi culture. I declined, pointing out that my immediate need was in talking to the Iraqi musicians. "We're afraid for them when they go back to Iraq, how people will react to them," she said. She invited me to a postconcert reception. The day before, Mr. Meier had asked me how my story was going and said to me, "I'm giving you access where other people didn't get it." Considering that at no time throughout the assignment did I have a chance to talk at any length with a member of the Iraqi National Symphony, that was small consolation. Mr. Rahim is a free-lance journalist.